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Testimony in opposition to SB 692

Testimony given before the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee regarding SB 692, which covers:

  • Removes prohibition against imposition of taxes by county on cigarettes and tobacco products.
  • Requires at least 20 percent of any tax imposed by county on cigarettes or tobacco products to be used for public health programs or services.

Chair Burdick and members of the Committee, my name is Steve Buckstein. I’m Senior Policy Analyst and founder of Cascade Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit public policy research organization based in Portland. Our mission is to promote policies that enhance individual liberty, personal responsibility and economic opportunity in Oregon.

I cannot attend your hearing on SB 692 so I wanted to submit brief written testimony in opposition.

I noted in this week’s Oregonian editorial in favor of this bill a telling paragraph:

“Try walking around your own neighborhood and you’ll quickly discover,
as Multnomah County did in a price survey, that cigarette prices are
extremely varied. Moral of the story: People addicted to a product are
inclined to run in and pay the going rate and ask questions later, at least
until they get fed up enough to seek help and quit.”*

So, at least some of the bill’s supporters assume that counties will be able to impose a tax on smokers and they either won’t notice, won’t care or won’t have a choice in the short run.  In the long run…well, you know what economist John Maynard Keynes said about that.

If taxing a relatively low-income, less-educated, more minority population is bad public policy on the state level, which I think it is, then it is equally bad public policy on the county level.

Governments too often see smokers as a minority that the rest of us will tax because we don’t smoke, so who cares. Well, the defeat of Measure 50 in 2007 should put that canard to rest. I don’t believe it was the heavy spending against the measure that swung voters to the No side on that tobacco tax. I believe it was a realization that it simply isn’t fair to tax a small minority just because we can.

And, if it isn’t fair to tax a small minority at the state level, then it isn’t fair at the county level either.

So, it isn’t good public policy, and it isn’t fair to tax smokers just because we can. SB 692 tries to look like it’s for the smoker’s own good by requiring at least 20% of the revenue be spent on public health programs, presumably to help smokers quit.  But that means that up to 80% of the revenue could be spent on anything else counties want to spend it on. It seems to me that this is simply a way to let counties impose a tax on a minority of their citizens with very little connection to the needs or wants of that minority.

I’m all for local control; in fact, I think the best local control is control by the individual over his or her own life. That includes the decision to smoke or not smoke without facing unfair taxation of that choice.

Thank you.

 

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